By Bridget Laird
Strong, positive relationships with students are the cornerstones of effective teaching and learning. Whether in the classroom or in an afterschool program like WINGS for Kids, even the most effective educators have room to improve practice in this area. One way to approach this skill-building is with a focus on the fundamentals of being SET: supportive, engaging, and thoughtful.
Being a Supportive Teacher
One of the most important aspects of being a supportive teacher is the capacity to inspire students and build their confidence. This means being unstinting with positive reinforcement and praise and intentionally creating classroom activities that facilitate confidence building.
Teaching Tip: Have students keep goal-setting journals in which you can write encouraging messages as they progress toward their goals.
Being a supportive teacher also extends beyond providing inspiration and building confidence. Providing true support also requires that educators cultivate an environment that enables students to do their best and is based on kindness and acceptance. Teachers can do this by modeling these traits at all times and actively creating opportunities for students to do the same.
Teaching Tip: Create a “compliment corner” where students and teachers can write compliments to each other that praise positive decision making and character traits, such as conflict resolution or work ethic.
Another essential strategy of supportive teaching is to empower students and create opportunities for them to take ownership of their learning. This can range from having a classroom suggestion box to allowing students to determine the direction of a particular lesson. This shows students that their teacher trusts them and values what they have to say, and that their engagement with the class matters.
Teaching Tip: Establish a classroom suggestion box and implement ideas from your students regularly and visibly.
Above all, being a supportive educator means being relentlessly positive. This can be challenging, especially when it comes to correcting misbehavior. However, by focusing on finding positive ways to address difficult behaviors and situations—by framing them as opportunities for improvement, for example—educators can transform those challenges into teachable moments that ultimately galvanize student confidence and strengthen the student-teacher relationship.
Being an Engaging Teacher
The ability to engage students is fundamental to creating a productive educational environment and is essential to building strong relationships between students and teachers. Without engagement, students are effectively excluded from the learning experience, depriving them of any way to meaningfully connect with their teacher.
In a general sense, being an engaging teacher means thinking about how to be relatable and accessible to students—for example, using age-appropriate language and connecting lessons to relevant aspects of students’ lives—and participating actively in classroom learning to show students that their teacher is a partner in their learning community. It also means using body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions to signal engagement and excitement in ways that students receive, understand, and can reciprocate.
Teaching Tip: Practice high-energy, high-enthusiasm teaching in front of a mirror or on video to improve student engagement.
More specifically, engaging teaching is defined by the use of lessons that encourage active participation by all students and energetic interaction between students and teachers. For example, group challenges and games can be a great way to introduce new concepts because they allow students to actively and productively struggle with new ideas and work together—and with their teacher—to find solutions.
Teaching Tip: Use classroom rounds to answer questions one on one, praise work/behavior, and model the type of engagement you hope to see from your students.
Additionally, engaging teachers rely on strategies that enable them to adapt their lesson plans based on student understanding, feedback, and participation rates. For example, a teacher might designate a “confusion word” such as “rewind” or “remix,” that students can use to signal that they do not understand or need more practice on a specific skill. This encourages active participation (even when a student may be struggling with a concept or skill) and honest student-teacher dialogue about the lesson and learning needs. This honesty and adaptability also empowers students to take further ownership of their learning and, again, to view themselves as partners with their teacher in the cooperative learning process.
Teaching Tip: Establish a “confusion word” for your class that students can use as shorthand for a lack of understanding.
Being a Thoughtful Teacher
Being a thoughtful teacher means thinking intentionally and proactively about the most effective strategies to both convey information and head off any potential problems. At its best, thoughtful teaching provides a strong foundation for positive relationships with students, as it demonstrates that the teacher thinks of the students both as a class and as individuals whose needs are considered and taken seriously. Thoughtfulness is most often conveyed to students through preparedness, such as when a teacher organizes a lesson to ensure that there is never any idle time and students are always engaged and sets clear expectations for how class time will be used. This kind of preparedness is clear to students and sends the message that their learning time is valued and that classroom activities are part of a larger plan. It also helps students see that their teacher wants them to be active learners and engaged in interesting learning experiences.
Teaching Tip: Minimize down time in the classroom and clearly communicate expectations for behavior and learning.
Thoughtfulness also requires teachers to actively observe their classrooms and students to identify opportunities to expand and deepen learning. By watching student interactions and actively listening to what students are saying, thoughtful teachers find moments to reinforce the broader lesson, introduce activities that build on student learning, and connect with students at their level. This can be as simple as walking around the classroom and asking challenging follow-up questions to different groups or individual students.
Teaching Tip: Assign “accountability buddies”—pairs of students who are accountable to each other and support each other’s progress towards goals.
Thoughtfulness should also extend to classroom organization. For example, like the “compliment corner” mentioned above, dedicating each corner of the classroom to a specific activity and providing the appropriate materials can be a great way to emphasize classroom values.
Teaching Tip: Try out different seating arrangements to identify what works best for students in your class.
By being supportive, engaging, and thoughtful, teachers can strengthen their relationships with every student, improving confidence, behavior, and academic outcomes over time.
Bridget Laird is the CEO of WINGS for Kids, an award-winning afterschool social and emotional education program. Since joining the organization in 1998, Laird has helped to develop all aspects of the organization, from program development to grant and research applications to growth strategies, replication, and scaling.